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by Indiewire
March 7, 2013 7:50 AM
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Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #44: Alicia Dwyer's "Xmas Without China" Offers A Surprising Change of Pace for Documentarian

Xmas Without China

On first glance, "Xmas Without China" seems to be a surprising next subject for Alicia Dwyer, the filmmaker who last brought us "Bully" and "Pandemic: Facing Aids." But the film's humor is filled with an undercurrent of social commentary, discussing America's reliance on foreign goods and our holiday traditions that blend to make one of the festival's more fascinating documentaries.

What it's about: A Chinese immigrant challenges his American neighbors to survive the Christmas season without any Chinese products.

Tell Us About Yourself: Alicia’s work recently appeared in theaters nation-wide in BULLY, distributed by The Weinstein Company, for which she directed key material with the main character, Alex. Alicia was a director on THE CALLING, a four-hour PBS series that was a flagship of the 2010 Independent Lens season. She was associate producer of the 2004 Emmy Award-nominated HBO series PANDEMIC: FACING AIDS and of the 2001 Academy Award-winning feature documentary INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS. In recent years, Alicia helped start Veracity Productions, an independent production company making cinema and media content for PBS, The Jim Henson Company, The New York Times Magazine Online, Oprah.com, The California Endowment and other non-profit organizations. Alicia was born in Santa Cruz, California, lived in Australia, New York and West Berlin as a child. She studied German and Politics at Princeton and received her MFA in Film Production from USC.

What else do you want audiences to know about your film? I have worked on films concerned with serious subjects like the Holocaust and HIV/AIDS, bullying and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I loved working on those films, but I found myself hungering for humor. So, I was delighted when my brother and filmmaking partner Michael Dwyer introduced me to his friend Tom Xia. Tom made me laugh, and when he told me about his big idea to challenge his neighbors to a Christmas without China, I thought, this is something worth following. Soon, we found ourselves filming the improbable relationship between two families living side by side but worlds apart. I am deeply grateful to both the Xia and Jones families for allowing us into their lives, and for taking us to unexpected places. I made this film with a fantastic team, including co-producer/editor Juli Vizza, cinematographer/co-producer Michael Dwyer and producer/main character Tom Xia.

What was your biggest challenge in developing this project? The concept of a Christmas without anything made in China touches on fascinating issues – globalization, the intersection of cultures, and shifts in our imaginings of the American dream – yet Tom Xia’s youthful pop-culture-inspired impulse to challenge his neighbors was instinctive and playful. My goal was to find how these themes naturally emerge out of the unfolding of the characters’ stories, so the biggest challenge in developing Xmas Without China was to strike the right tone for a film that is a documentary comedy about serious issues we have with our stuff.

What would you like SXSW audiences to come away with after seeing your film? One of the most intriguing places that the story takes us is the intersection of consumerism and citizenship in American life. “Who are we if we don’t make anything anymore?” Evelyn Jones asks her neighbor Tom Xia. Bravely taking on Tom’s challenge to empty their house of Chinese stuff and to not buy any more during a Christmas season, the Jones family experiences the sheer material difficulty of living without so many everyday things. This is a considerable change for them, highlighting our dependence on cheaply made stuff, but what particularly strikes me is that the Joneses’ process also illuminates spiritual aspects of our consumer-driven life. If we can’t put up Christmas lights and buy presents, how do we celebrate Christmas? Meanwhile, as Chinese immigrants, Tom’s family, in seeking their American dream to build a Colonial style home and even decorate their first enormous Christmas tree, are finding themselves embroiled in similar questions as they try in some ways to keep up with the Joneses. When Evelyn asks Tom if he’s an American citizen, his crisis around his identity brings together for me the material and spiritual questions, like what does it mean to be American in a culture where, as economist Raj Patel suggests, we are often encouraged to think of ourselves less as citizens and more as consumers?

What do you have in the works? We are in post-production on a documentary funded by ITVS currently titled Nine to Ninety about a family dealing with aging. After five years of living with their daughter in California, 89-year old Phyllis and her husband Joe (90) are faced with the challenge of deciding if they must part after 62 years of marriage. Hoping to lessen the burden on one daughter, Phyllis considers leaving her husband to live with their other daughter in Pennsylvania. http://www.itvs.org/films/nine-to-ninety

We are also poised to go into production on a fiction feature entitled Pocha. A taut, slow-burning thriller, Pocha is the transformative story of a strong-willed, Mexican-American immigrant named Claudia Samaniega. After being deported from the US for credit card fraud, Claudia returns to her estranged father’s cattle ranch in northern Mexico where she partners with a small-time smuggler who promises to get her back to America if she helps him run product through her father’s ranch. www.veracityproductions.com

Indiewire invited SXSW directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

 Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on March 8 for the latest profiles.

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